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'Tar' tracks the fictional unraveling of a celebrated orchestra player

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Tar" is one of the biggest films of the fall - Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tar, a world-class, world-roving orchestra conductor - New York City, Berlin - who is, by universal acclaim, brilliant, driven and has the rare genius to make classical music come alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAR")

CATE BLANCHETT: (As Lydia Tar) Please. Please, please, please. You must watch. (Speaking German). OK? It's got to be like just one person singing their heart out.

SIMON: But what is the cost of that song she creates sometimes, to her and to others? Todd Field wrote and directed "Tar," and he joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

TODD FIELD: Thank you.

SIMON: What made you want to tell this story?

FIELD: Well, I'd been thinking about this character for a very long time and sort of been asking myself, you know, some questions of how we look at power, you know? Like, who has it? Who feeds it? Who benefits? You know, and from the beginning of time, that hasn't really been a question. Those individuals have been male and the last 2,000 years, predominantly white males. So we're attenuated to how we're supposed to feel about that. And potentially, the tempo of arriving at that feeling narrows the possibilities of examining how the pyramid of power actually functions. So it felt sort of important that maybe our lead character wasn't a male and that perhaps we would have a slightly more nuanced way of asking some questions.

SIMON: You do appreciate, seeing this film, how the head of a major orchestra really is the CEO, isn't she?

FIELD: Yeah, she's sitting at the head of a very large bureaucracy with very, very defined lines of power and how that's transmitted and transmuted between different parties, for sure.

SIMON: Yeah. Cate Blanchett has been acclaimed for giving the performance of a lifetime, which is quite a statement given her lifetime career. I want to play this clip. She is trying to describe what she does on stage to the real-life Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker as the orchestra's metronome.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAR")

BLANCHETT: (As Lydia Tar) And however, unlike a clock, sometimes my second hand stops, which means that time stops. Now, the illusion is that, like you, I'm responding to the orchestra in real time...

ADAM GOPNIK: (As himself) Right, right.

BLANCHETT: (As Lydia Tar) ...Making the decision about the right moment to restart the thing or reset it or throw time out the window altogether. The reality is that right from the very beginning, I know precisely what time it is...

GOPNIK: (As himself) Really?

BLANCHETT: (As Lydia Tar) ...And the exact moment that you and I will arrive at our destination together.

SIMON: That description is, if I may, sensuous and lyrical and intoxicating. Are they also the words of someone who is intoxicated with all that power?

FIELD: Well, I mean, it's a very, very, you know, exalted position to be a conductor, as anyone who's had the opportunity and the privilege of doing it will tell you. And if you talk to other conductors or if you hear them speak, they talk about that feeling of the music coming through them. There are very few people who've walked the earth who knows exactly what that is. It's a little bit like being on Mount Olympus, you know?

SIMON: Yeah. What does Lydia Tar find in music, do you think?

FIELD: I think she found probably the very first glimpse as a young person, you know, viewing, say, Lenny Bernstein on PBS or something like that, which was a window to something beautiful and fine and exotic that she didn't have in her upbringing. And she ran toward that as a dream. And that dream now has become sort of a nightmare based on, as you point out, you know, what she's actually doing running this organization and probably speaking to some of her less-than-admirable traits.

SIMON: I think we don't reveal too much to say she is accused of abusing her power to compel sexual relationships. Tar and some of the people around her invariably cite a long list of male conductors who did the same thing historically. But it's 2022 now. Is it enough to say, well, you know, that's what white cisgendered men did?

FIELD: No, I don't think it's enough to say that. I mean, it's - you know, in many ways, this film's a fractured fairy tale. I mean, there's never been a single woman who's held the principal conductor post of a major German orchestra. However, you know, I wanted to tell this story where the fact that the character was a female was simply a given. But this character very much downplays her identity and her gender for her own selfish reasons, you know? She wants to be judged on her own merits. But there is something she's not talking about, which is vitally important, you know, that disparity. I mean, she's essentially operating within the same parameters as any of the patriarchy that came before her.

SIMON: I guess the question your film keeps raising is, is genius worth the cost to one's self or to those they love?

FIELD: And what is genius? You know, the very fact that there is an otherness in that word says that it's not normal. You know, what's expected of people that have particular gifts? How much do we allow? And I think those are very important questions and difficult questions to try and answer.

SIMON: Could Cate Blanchett really conduct a symphony if she needed to?

FIELD: I think Cate Blanchett could do anything that she set her mind to.

SIMON: (Laughter).

FIELD: I mean, Cate is a genius. That's not overstating things. Yes. Cate Blanchett is conducting the Mahler. She's conducting the Elgar. And I reckon that if she decided to change vocations and devote her life to that, that she would be an inspired person on the podium, for sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIERRE AND VIENNA PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF MAHLER'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN C-SHARP MINOR")

SIMON: "Tar" is out now, the new film written and directed by Todd Field. Mr. Field, thank you so much for being with us.

FIELD: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIERRE AND VIENNA PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF MAHLER'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN C-SHARP MINOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.